WorldView: A Language Blog

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Teaching Tolerance through Storytelling

By Emily Pyenson and Alex Treitler | Published: November 19, 2019

Would you expect that teenagers in Sweden and the U.S. respectively would be interested in and challenged by the same issues?  Could they participate in the same workshops on opposite sides of the globe and each be challenged in meaningful ways? 

Students sit on the floor in a circle with Julie Lindah
Julie Lindahl leads a workshop with 
Sjölunden villagers about inclusivity
through storytelling. 

This summer in early August, author and educator Julie Lindahl spent six days working with villagers at Concordia Language Villages. Lindahl is perhaps best known in the U.S. for her memoir The Pendulum (2018), a painstaking exploration of her family’s Nazi past. Lindahl’s work as an educator, however, long predates her memoir. Through her non-profit, Stories for Society, Lindahl has worked with children, youth, youth leaders and teachers to address the issues of diversity and inclusivity.

Lindahl has seen her work become all the more urgent in light of the rise of xenophobic and neo-Nazi trends in Swedish society. A telling marker is the rise of the anti-immigrant party, “Sweden Democrats” (sverigedemokraterna), which last year received 17.5% of the vote, becoming Sweden’s third largest party.  Storytelling is a central part of Lindahl’s work as an educator, addressing the central question of how narratives absorbed from our social context shape the way we relate to each other. In the background lurks the uneasy question that permeates Lindahl’s memoir and that she addresses in public appearances: How and why is it that we give up on democracy?

Through funding from the Swedish Council of America, Lindahl spent five days in hands-on workshops with older villagers at Sjölunden using methods she developed through Stories for Society. An underlying theme was diversity and inclusivity.

One might ask the question, what does a workshop about storytelling have to do with language learning? The answer lies in Concordia Language Villages’ mission, “to inspire courageous global citizens.” Storytelling becomes the means to address:

  1. How pre-existing narratives give rise to increasing numbers of hate crimes, as well as rising support of anti-immigrant policies;
  2. How each culture approaches diversity and difference; and
  3. How language use becomes a marker of societal trends (note the use of “democracy” by the “Sweden Democrats”).

The workshops began with the overarching questions, “What is global?” and “What is a global citizen?” These questions framed a more detailed discussion of issues rooted in current events. 

Once the villagers had engaged in activities and discussion of the terms “global” and “global citizen,” they were primed to grapple with more difficult questions.  They soon discovered that the notion of global citizenship was challenging. Lindahl pointed out that you can’t actually be a global citizen; there is no passport issued by “the Earth.” What then, does global citizenship really mean? Is it something that we can distill into a checklist? For example, “Must a global citizen have traveled to at least [x number of] countries?” or “Can global citizenship be defined through a specific set of personality traits?” The villagers grappled eagerly and thoughtfully with these questions. 

After starting with a description of current events that brought up, for example, diversity, multi-culturalism and integration, Lindahl guided the villagers in a creative exercise. In groups, they were to write a story about fictional island dwellers who suddenly encounter a newcomer. The villagers were to describe what would happen next and what issues would arise. Lindahl gave several examples of issues raised by recent events in Sweden, then asked participants for experiences from their hometowns or in the news that brought up similar issues.

It was remarkable to see the connections that the young people drew between their own experiences and the experiences of Swedish youth grappling with similar issues.  Lindahl guided the conversation without forcing a particular conclusion. As participants developed stories informed by the discussion points of the day, they modeled open-minded and open-ended dialogue where ideas were given time and space to develop.  Villagers walked away from the workshops with a deeper understanding of significant issues facing young people in Sweden today. In a transformative way, they also experienced how important it is to stay open and receptive when discussing difficult and complex topics.

About the Authors

Emily Kajsa Pyenson is the dean of Sjölunden, the Swedish Language Village. Kajsa was a Swedish villager and has been a staff member for 19 years.  Outside of the village, she has worked in intercultural training and as a teacher across the age spectrum.  She currently lives in the Washington, DC area. 

 

 

Alex Treitler is a graduate of Columbia University and has master's degrees in theology from Uppsala University in Sweden and Columbia University in NYC. Alex has a background in teaching Swedish, English as a second language, and remedial Swedish to immigrant students in Sweden.  In 2018, Alex started Your Story Shared, LLC, a business focused on producing books, audio recordings and websites that gather and share the stories of a family’s oldest generation. He is the executive director of Children's Grief Connection

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